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A New Religious Landscape
"Reconstruction "of the break-away Southern states ended formally in 1877. After the disputed Hayes (Republican)-Tilden (Democrat)presidential election of that year, Democrats gave Rutherford B. Hayes the electoral votes necessary to extend Republican control of the White House. In return, Republicans agreed to pull the last Federal troops out of the South and, in effect, to return political control of that part of the nation to an all-white Democratic Party. Among the power elites of the nation, there was no stomach for the intense struggle it would have taken to ensure African Americans the full rights of citizenship. The nation was hurrying on; whatever the moral cost, the Americans who controlled public life thought it was time to get over the Civil War.
Of course the profound antagonisms that had surfaced in the war could not be done away with so easily. African Americans especially continued to suffer when attention was turned away from the effort to guarantee full civil rights for all. Their situation would also have an immediate impact on American religion, since the failure to achieve social equality was matched by a great boom in the establishment of black churches. In turn, these churches have continued to play a major role for African American communities to the present day. From the 1950s, the values they nourished began to make an obvious impact on the nation's history as a whole.
Long before the Civil Rights Movement of that later era, however, the shape of the nation's religious life was being drastically transformed. The older, well-established Protestant churches and the newer strength of the Catholic church no longer made up the entirety of the nation's organized religion. A great surge of immigration after the Civil War brought increased numbers of Jews to the United States, and soon there would be significant American populations of Muslims, Buddhists, and others from the furthest corners of the world. Yet changes worked in the history of American religion by immigration were only a few of the many new directions, new movements, new spaces, new challenges, and new constituencies that came to play important parts in religious history during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the daunting years of a new century.
Bound for the Promised Land
For all the blood that had soaked into the battlefields of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg, the ultimate healing came in the form of many transfusions of new blood. In the half-century following the Civil War, hundreds, then thousands, then millions of new immigrants arrived. From 1865 to 1915, about twenty-five million hopefuls reached America's shores. They came from western and northern Europe, from eastern and southern Europe, and even from Russia and the Far East. A pervasively Protestant America watched Roman Catholicism, already by 1850 the largest single denomination, grow by giant increments as new national groups arrived in wholesale lots. For its own part, this large church found the sudden surge in membership both enheartening and overwhelming. How to feed and house? to educate or mollify? to maintain in harmony as part of the one universal and apostolic Church? In New York City, for example, Archbishop John Hughes grappled with problems that daunted, even before the numbers swelled-and swelled.
In that same half-century (1865-1915), Judaism mushroomed from a modest and predominantly German minority to a large and visible presence. As with Roman Catholicism, the numerical growth among Jews brought with it a wondrous variety in liturgy, political attitude, and national origin. Most of the new arrivals reveled in the discovery that "in this great glorious and free country," as Solomon Schechter declared in 1904,"we Jews need not sacrifice a single iota of our Torah; and, in the enjoyment of absolute equality with our fellow citizens, we can live to carry out those ideals for which our ancestors so often had to die."
One group of fellow citizens in the half-century after 1865 felt that equality continued to elude them. The emancipation of women, like the emancipation of the slaves, required reform of both Constitution and conscience. Not until 1920 did women win the right to vote, and more than half a century after that, full Constitutional equality remained ambiguous at best. The late nineteenth century, however, did see religious doors being opened more widely to women. Women entered pulpits, led reforms, edited and translated the Bible, although none of this was accomplished without stern opposition. Arguments - whether for or against the broader participation of women - came from history and tradition, from biblical direction and social need, from common sense and common hope. Little common ground could be found, however, between those who on the one hand held that "woman is not designed by God ... to all the franchises in society to which the male is entitled," and those who on the other hand concluded that "the masculine and feminine elements, exactly equal and balancing each other, are as essential to the maintenance of the equilibrium of the universe as positive and negative electricity...." Depending on the perspective of the antagonists, cosmic equilibrium in the 1880s and 1890s was either being badly upset or more nearly achieved.
The nation's effective dominion over a vast continent, interrupted by a costly war, resumed its reach in the postwar period. Religious forces continued then, as they had earlier, to be instruments of civilizing and of Christianizing, those two processes being seen as complementary if not synonymous. Once the Mississippi River had been crossed, the lands to be reached were of greater expanse, the Indians to be instructed of profounder distrust. Roman Catholic Pierre Jean De Smet and Presbyterian Sheldon Jackson left St. Louis and kept walking westward and northward, Jackson continuing all the way to Alaska. Neither Catholics nor Presbyterians, however, managed to send the first missionaries into Alaska; that priority belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. Well before the Civil War, that ancient church had entered the American West - not by crossing mountains, plains, and rivers, but the Pacific Ocean itself. Writing in 1840, Father John Veniaminov, Orthodoxy's most famous missionary to "Russian America," described with pleasure "the dissemination and consolidation of Christ's Faith in one of the most remote territories of our Society, where through God's pleasure had the opportunity of spending many years." Also before the Civil War, mainland American missionaries had penetrated another outpost of empire: the Sandwich or Hawaiian Islands. After that war, Japanese emigrating to Hawaii filled those islands with a faith even more ancient than Russian Orthodoxy: namely, Buddhism. By this means, the Asiatic East was moving toward the American West at the same time that Atlantic seaboard easterners migrated toward the Pacific West. In the nineteenth century, East and West did meet; the twain were joined, even if they failed to become one.
A New World-Abroad and at Home
These important contacts in Alaska and the Pacific, however, were by no means the limit of American involvement with the world beyond its continental borders. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the Spanish-American War drew eyes to other places over seas, even as it raised issues of American destiny and American morality. Clergymen like Henry Van Dyke wondered aloud: "Have we set the Cubans free or have we lost our faith in freedom?" The "Philippine Question "concerned not only the balance of Protestant and Catholic additions to the empire, but also the question of the "white man's burden "with respect to the "weaker races "(to use the language of another Protestant clergyman, Thomas Dixon, in his popular and prejudiced 1902 novel, The Leopard's Spots). It is one thing to export our creed of human rights, freedom, and opportunity, said Roman Catholic John Spalding; it is quite another to thrust this or any other creed "down unwilling throats at the point of a bayonet."
More Americans were becoming aware of foreign lands through missionary labors than even through the exciting traumas of warfare. By the 1880s multiplying efforts by Protestants to carry the Christian message to other parts of the world had been underway for seventy years. Missionary interest and enthusiasm continued to rise in tandem with the nation's rising population, political power, and gross domestic product. Yet no simple equation could ever be drawn concerning such aspects of expanding national might and the volunteers who left American shores for expressly religious purposes. Perhaps the most obvious trait of those volunteers in the late nineteenth century was the leadership that women were assuming in the enterprise.
In 1893 East and West met with more deliberate intent in mid-America's great metropolis of Chicago. The occasion, the World Parliament of Religions, emerged as a sort of "side exhibit" of Chicago's Columbian Exposition of that year. But this side exhibit, brainchild of Congregationalist John Henry Barrows, appeared to the religiously minded to be as striking as the main show, and perhaps even more instructive. Now not only Buddhism but Hinduism, Confucianism, Shinto, and slam had their own spokesmen. If Americans had heard anything at all of these religions, they had heard from Christian missionaries; now, a differing point of view made itself known. Judaism had its spokeswomen, Catholicism - both Greek and Roman - its apologists, Protestantism its participants as well as its sometimes anxious observers. And apart from the adherents of specific institutional forms of religion, many came to probe that slippery entity called "religion." The Parliament stood as an augury of the nation's future: pluralistic, adventuresome in dialogue, defensive in structure, persuaded that somehow men and women of goodwill could play a role in promoting peace on earth.
Yet confronted with diversity so flamboyant, so indelible, some wondered if this coat of many colors was religion's most impressive garment as it moved forward to solve humanity's problems or to offer solace for problems that had no solution. If, moreover, one looked at the world of religions in broadest terms - Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, Christian, etc. - did this not suggest that those large divisions ought to present a united front to a restless world? Could not badly divided Christendom, for example, put its own house in order, the better to compete against other religious options, now seen as genuine and alive?
If Parliament dramatized diversity in religion, the Eleventh Census (1890) documented it so far as the United States was concerned. The Christian faith seemed a fractious, brawling collection of competing sects, too busy distinguishing themselves from their fellows to worry about the advances of Buddhism or Islam." The external divisions of Christendom," said Lutheran seminary president Francis Pieper in 1893, "are a most deplorable state of things ... contrary to the will of God." And the Methodist layman who had conducted the religious census, H. K. Carroll, thought that, at the very least, denominational families ought to be able to overcome their minor differences. Yet many others, like leaders of resurgent African-American denominations thought otherwise.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, the United States was a showplace of religious freedom. Some feared, however, that it might turn out to be the graveyard of sect, schism, and separation, of religious faith reduced to the most casual choice, the most insignificant option. Before many decades had passed, the nation's churches and synagogues might, like Samson without his hair, "become weak" and "not know that the Lord had left" them. Should that occur, the theological and ecclesiastical reconstructions and reaffirmations of the nineteenth century could be judged only as failures.
1.Bound for the Promised Land
The Ocean's Bounty
In the half-century between the end of one war and the beginning of another (1865-1914), the sources of European immigration ended to shift from northern and western Europe to the eastern and southern portions of that continent. The comparable shift, in religious terms, was away from Protestantism toward Roman Catholicism and Judaism. Nonetheless, the Protestant stream did no altogether cease. The following three excerpts reflect the flow from: (1) Russia (Mennonite); (2) Holland (Reformed); and (3) Norway (Lutheran). The Dutch recollection is provided by Lucy Klooster (d.1941), a life-long resident of a Reformed community in Michigan, while the Norwegian account comes from Eugene Boe, a Minnesota native and later professional writer living in New York City.
Eugene Schuyler, U.S. Legation, St. Petersburgh, to Hamilton Fish, No.168, March 30,1872.
I have the honor to enclose you a copy of a letter have received from Mr. [Timothy] Smith, the Consul at Odessa, on the subject of the contemplated emigration of the Mennonite colonies in the South of Russia to America, and also a copy of my answer thereto.
The Mennonites first came to Russia from Prussia in 1789 in answer to an invitation of Catherine II who gave them land, means with which to establish themselves and temporary relief from taxes and contributions, and promised them religious freedom and exemption for ever from every form of military service. They settled in the South of Russia, in what is now the Government of Taurid, on a tract of land between the rivers Dnieper, Molotschna and Tokmak, and in 1855 numbered some 17,000 souls (male).
The Mennonites are good agriculturists but are particularly noted for their plantations of fruit, forest and mulberry trees. This culture they have followed with great success on steppes that were formerly perfectly bare.
The Mennonites are intelligent, industrious and persevering, and in addition very clean, orderly, moral, temperate and economical. As may be judged from their application they are excessively religious. Petzholdt in his travels in 1855 says, that it is his "firm conviction that Russia can not show any more diligent and more useful citizens." There are schools in every village and education is universal amongst them.
The details of the Law of Universal Compulsory Military Service have not yet been decided on, but it is not proposed to exempt any individuals or classes of the community from its operation.
I do not think it would be possible to find in Europe any better emigrant than these Mennonites, and should the whole colony go to the United States they would rapidly develop into good and useful citizens.
As I have stated in my letter to Mr.
Excerpted from A Doumentary History of Religion in America by Edwin S. Gaustad Copyright © 2003 by Edwin S. Gaustad. Excerpted by permission.
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